solid foundation of her own character was good sense, and her type of excellence as displayed in her
heroines is a woman full of feeling, but with her feelings thoroughly under control. Genuine sensibility,
however, even when too little under control, she can regard as lovable. Marianne in “Sense and
Sensibility” is an object of sympathy, because her emotions, though they are ungoverned and lead her
into folly, are genuine, and are matched in intensity by her sisterly affection. But affected sentiment gets
Jane Austen had, as she was sure to have, a feeling for the beauties of nature. She paints in glowing
language the scenery of Lyme. She speaks almost with rapture of a view which she calls thoroughly
English, though never having been out of England she could hardly judge of its scenery by contrast. She
was deeply impressed by the sea, on which, she says, “all must linger and gaze, on their first return to it,
who ever deserves to look on it at all.” But admiration of the picturesque had “become a mere jargon,”
from which Jane Austen recoiled. One of her characters is made to say that he likes a fine prospect, but
not on picturesque principles; that he prefers tall and flourishing trees to those which are crooked and
blasted; neat to ruined cottages, snug farmhouses to watchtowers, and a troop of tidy, happy villagers to
the finest banditti in the world….
Jane Austen held the mirror up to her time, or at least to a certain class of the people of her time; and
her time was two generations and more before ours. We are reminded of this as we read her works by a
number of little touches of manners and customs belonging to the early part of the century, and anterior
to the rush of discovery and development which the century has brought with it. There are no railroads,
and no lucifer matches. It takes you two days and a half, even when you are flying on the wings of love
or remorse, to get from Somersetshire to London. A young lady who has snuffed her candle out has to go
to bed in the dark. The watchman calls the hours of the night. Magnates go about in chariots and four
with outriders, their coachmen wearing wigs. People dine at five, and instead of spending the evening in
brilliant conversation as we do they spend it in an unintellectual rubber of whist, or a round game. Life is
unelectric, untelegraphic; it is spent more quietly and it is spent at home. If you are capable of enjoying
tranquillity, at least by way of occasional contrast to the stir and stress of the present age, you will find in
these tales the tranquillity of a rural neighborhood and a little country town in England a century ago….
That Jane Austen held up the mirror to her time must be remembered when she is charged with want of
delicacy in dealing with the relations between the sexes, and especially in speaking of the views of
women with regard to matrimony. Women in those days evidently did consider a happy marriage as the
best thing that destiny could have in store for them. They desired it for themselves and they sought it for
their daughters. Other views had not opened out to them; they had not thought of professions or public
life, nor had it entered into the mind of any of them that maternity was not the highest duty and the crown
of womanhood. Apparently they also confessed their aims to themselves and to each other with a
frankness which would be deemed indelicate in our time. The more worldly and ambitious of them
sought in marriage rank and money, and avowed that they did, whereas they would not avow it at the
present day. Gossip and speculation on these subjects were common and more unrefined than they are
now, and they naturally formed a large part of the amusement of the opulent and idle class from which
Jane Austen’s characters were drawn. Often, too, she is ironical; the love of irony is a feature of her
mind, and for this also allowance must be made. She does not approve or reward matchmaking or
husband-hunting. Mrs. Jennings, the great matchmaker in “Sense and Sensibilty,” is also a paragon of
vulgarity. Mrs. Norris’s matchmaking in “Mansfield Park” leads to the most calamitous results. Charlotte
Lucas in “Pride and Prejudice,” who unblushingly avows that her object is a husband with a good
income, gets what she sought, but you are made to see that she has bought it dear….
The life which Jane Austen painted retains its leading features, and is recognized by the reader at the
present day with little effort of the imagination. It is a life of opulent quiet and rather dull enjoyment,
physically and morally healthy compared with that of a French aristocracy, though without much of the
salt of duty; a life uneventful, exempt from arduous struggles and devoid of heroism, a life presenting no
materials for tragedy and hardly an element of pathos, a life of which matrimony is the chief incident,
and the most interesting objects are the hereditary estate and the heir.
Such a life could evidently furnish no material for romance. It could furnish materials only for that class
of novel which corresponds to sentimental comedy. To that class all Jane Austen’s novels belong.—From
Life of Jane Austen,” in “Great Writers,” 1890.
Criticisms and Interpretations
VI. By F. W. Cornish
JANE AUSTEN needs no testimonials; her position is at this moment established on a firmer basis than
that of any of her contemporaries. She has completely distanced Miss Edgeworth, Miss Ferrier, Fanny
Burney, and Hannah More, writers who eclipsed her modest reputation in her own day. The readers of
Evelina,” “Ormond,” “Marriage,” or “Caelebs” are few; but hundreds know intimately every character
and every scene in “Pride and Prejudice.” She has survived Trollope and Mrs. Gaskell: one may almost
say that she is less out of date than Currer Bell and George Eliot. It was not always so. In 1859 a writer in
Blackwood’s Magazine” spoke of her as “being still unfamiliar in men’s mouths” and “not even now a
The reason for this comparative obscurity in her own time, compared with her fame at the present day,
may in some measure be that in writing, as in other arts, finish is now more highly prized than formerly.
But conception as well as finish is in it. The miracle in Jane Austen’s writing is not only that her
presentment of each character is complete and consistent, but also that every fact and particular situation
is viewed in comprehensive proportion and relation to the rest. Some facts and expressions which pass
almost unnoticed by the reader, and quite unnoticed by the other actors in the story, turn up later to take
their proper place. She never drops a stitch. The reason is not so much that she took infinite trouble,
though no doubt she did, as that everything was actual to her, as in his larger historical manner
everything was actual to Macaulay.
It is easier to feel than to estimate a genius which has no parallel. Jane Austen’s faults are obvious. She
has no remarkable distinction of style. Her plots, though worked out with microscopic delicacy, are
neither original nor striking; incident is almost absent; she repeats situations, and to some extent even
characters. She cared for story and situation only as they threw light on character. She has little idealism,
little romance, tenderness. Poetry, or religion. All this may be conceded, and yet she stands by the side of
Moliere, unsurpassed among writers of prose and poetry, within the limits which she imposed on herself,
for clear and sympathetic vision of human character.
She sees everything in clear outline and perspective. She does not care to analyze by logic what she
knows by intuition; she does not search out the grounds of motive like George Eliot, nor illumine them
like Meredith by search-light flashes of insight, nor like Hardy display them by irony sardonic or pitying,
nor like Henry James thread a labyrinth of indications and intimations, repulsions and attractions right
and left, all pointing to the central temple, where sits the problem. She has no need to construct her
characters, for there they are before her, like Mozart’s music, only waiting to be written down.—From
Jane Austen” in “English Men of Letters.”
List of Characters
MR BENNET, a gentleman in moderate circumstances living in a small town in Hertfordshire.
MRS BENNET, his wife.
JANE, ELIZABETH, MARY, CATHERINE, & LYDIA, daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet.
SIR WILLIAM LUCAS, an affable knight, formerly in trade.
LADY LUCAS, his wife.
CHARLOTTE, MARIA, & MASTER LUCAS, children of Sir William and Lady Lucas.
MR CHARLES BINGLEY a rich and amiable young man of leisure.
MR HURST, brother-in-law of Mr. Bingley.
MRS HURST & MISS CAROLINE BINGLEY sisters of Mr. Bingley.
FITZWILLIAM DARCY, a friend of Mr. Bingley and a young man of wealth and high station.
GEORGIANA DARCY, younger sister of Mr. Darcy.
COLONEL FORSTER, of the ——shire Regiment.
MRS FORSTER, his wife.
MR PHILIPS, successor to Mrs. Bennet’s father in business.
MRS PHILIPS, his wife, sister to Mrs. Bennet.
MR GARDINER, in business in London, a brother of Mrs. Bennet.
MRS GARDINER, his wife.
Several young children of the Gardiners.
REV WILLIAM COLLINS, a pompous and obsequious clergyman, cousin to the Bennets.
LADY CATHERINE DE BOURGH, a domineering, rich old lady, aunt of Mr. Darcy.
MISS DE BOURGH, invalid daughter of Lady Catherine.
MR WICKHAM, a worthless young officer in the ——shire Regiment.
MISS KING, courted by Wickham.
COLONEL FITZWILLIAM, a cousin of Mr. Darcy and nephew of Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
MRS RYENOLDS, Darcy’s housekeeper.
IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want
of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood,
this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful
property of some one or other of their daughters.
‘My dear Mr. Bennet,’ said his lady to him one day, ‘have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?’
Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
‘But it is,’ returned she; ‘for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.’
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